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6 February 2019

The Donald Tusk affair shows that Britain is in an abusive relationship with the EU – and we’re the abuser

Brexiteers liken European leaders to Nazis and Soviets, but the minute they answer back, they've somehow crossed the line.

By Jonn Elledge

Here are some things that have genuinely happened during the last three years.

In May 2016, just a few weeks before Britain held that referendum on its membership of the European Union, Boris Johnson told his once and future employers at the Telegraph that the EU was attempting to create “a European superstate” in the same way as “Napoleon or Hitler” had. The interview noted that the man still then described as “the former mayor of London” was a “keen classical scholar,” as if this somehow qualified him to recognise a Nazi superstate when he saw one.

Later that day, Iain Duncan Smith agreed with him. So did Jacob Rees Mogg.

In the months that followed the referendum (if you’re just joining us: we lost), Remainers and compromisers were regularly referred to as “quislings, collaborators or traitors” – language that pitches the EU not as a club run by some of Britain’s closest allies, but a hostile force with which we were at war, an impression aided further by all the cringemaking comparisons between Brexit and the Blitz. Then last October, Jeremy Hunt – who, as a former Remainer with leadership ambitions, presumably felt under some pressure to prove he was not one of said collaborators – compared the EU to the “prison” of the Soviet Union.

At regular intervals throughout this mess, leave supporters have implied, or sometimes simply stated, that the solution to the Irish Border problem is for the Republic of Ireland to stop pissing about with its pro-European leanings, and meekly follow its former coloniser out the door. It was obnoxious enough when it was Nigel Farage doing this, but over the last few months the mystifyingly un-sacked John Humphrys has started getting in on the act too.

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Throughout this, EU spokespeople and European politicians have been, not calm, exactly: on more than one occasion they’ve been visibly exasperated. But they’ve not been unreasonable in their exasperation. They’ve not, based on the comments of a few British politicians, questioned the sanity or motivations of all British politicians, let alone all British people. Britain has been spoken of like a friend working through some difficult issues, not an enemy which must be crushed at all costs. In other words, Europe’s politicians have been a lot nicer about Britain than Britain has recently been about them.

Anyway, a couple of hours ago European Council president Donald Tusk said there was a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely,” and the entire British establishment totally lost its shit.

Two things strike me about Tusk’s statement. One is that he wasn’t talking about leave voters, but the politicians who misled them into thinking this would be easy, which it very obviously isn’t. Odds are, if you’re reading this, he wasn’t talking about you.

The other is that he’s very obviously, and uncontroversially, right: the people who promoted Brexit didn’t have a plan, and the no deal Brexit of which we’re currently looking down the barrel will lead to food and medicine shortages, and when it does there is a significant chance that some people will quite literally die. Some of those people will have voted Leave. I’m not a religious man, but I imagine that, if there were a hell, then these charlatans are exactly the sort of people that it’d be for.

But that hasn’t stopped Tusk’s comments being reported as if he’s made some terrible slur against the British people, or the brain geniuses of British politics from describing him as “spiteful” (Andrea Leadsom) or an “arrogant bully” (Nigel Farage).

The most impressive response of all, for a certain value of impressive, was this strangely sexually charged effort from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, which described Tusk as a “devilish euro maniac… doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound”. “All he will succeed in doing is stiffening resistance,” Sammy concluded. I’m not the only one who can see this, surely?

Anyway: the lesson here is clear. Pro-Brexit politicians and commentators think it’s entirely reasonable to describe European leaders as Nazis, Soviets, or whatever other historically inept slur leaps to mind, and just expect them to take it. But the minute they answer back, even politely, they have somehow crossed the line into indecency, sir, and this shall not stand.

Somehow, Britain has ended up in an abusive relationship with the European Union – and Britain is the abusive partner.

There are 51 days to go until Brexit.